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The Cathedral of St. Ranke

The view that the great cathedral of history is being built brick by brick by historians, some of them filling gaps and forming pillars, while the majority of them add their small bricks in the form of monographs […] is not entirely a wrong one–but we must recognize that the greatest of cathedrals are never finished; they are in constant need of cleaning and refurbishing, indeed, of all kinds of repairs–and also that every generation may see them differently.

— John Lukacs, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History (Wilmington, Del. : Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000), pg. 21fn

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A little color

About one-fifth of the front of the Topps Baseball 2018 Series Two baseball card pack is coated in a shiny turquoise color.

Generations of my ancestors rarely (if ever) saw a color like that. Its existence in the world was limited to the jewelry and paintings owned by the wealthy and privileged.

And now that color is coated on a piece of foil that can be bought for the equivalent of 11 minutes of work at the local minimum wage.

Perishing by publishing

[K-]72. There is no greater impediment to progress in the sciences than the desire to see it take place too quickly. This is very characteristic of brisk and lively people, which is why they seldom achieve very much: for they are cast down and give up as soon as they perceive they are not advancing. Yet they would have advanced if they had used less energy and taken more time.

— Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (translated by R. J. Hollingdale), The Waste Books (New York : New York Review of Books, 2000 [1990]), pg. 201.

Yet what any individual in the Frankish Empire [of the 8th century AD] got to read was often a matter of chance. The full range of classical literature was by no means still available in its entirety. Much had disappeared and had been lost forever. Because of lack of knowledge of the language, almost everything in Ancient Greek had by now vanished from the educational canon of the Latin people, insofar as those works had not been translated or popularized in Latin in the classical period or late antiquity. Indeed, the image we have of ancient Roman literature has to this day been fundamentally shaped by the Carolingian age’s eagerness to read such works. Every piece of Latin literature that this period managed to get hold of and save has been preserved for posterity; conversely, the works it shunned or never got to know have been lost forever.

— Johannes Fried, Charlemagne (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University, 2016), pg. 274.

The most impressive application of Ibn Khaldun’s approach is his historical and sociological elaboration of the cyclical pattern of rise, peak, and decline. If a society becomes a leading civilization or even the dominant culture in a region, according to Ibn Khaldun the peak of this civilization is always followed by a period of decline. This means that the next cohesive group that conquers this civilization is a gang of barbarians by comparison. Once they have established their control over the conquered civilization, these barbarians are attracted by its more refined aspects, such as literature, art, and science, which are subsequently assimilated or appropriated by the oppressors. The upshot is that the next group of barbarians repeats this process, as a result of which the pattern of peak and decline actually leads to an accumulation of knowledge and culture.

— Rens Bod, A New History of the Humanities; Oxford, England : Oxford University Press, 2013; pg. 97.

While voting for ALA Council this weekend, I came up with five positive characteristics in a nominee:

  1. Longer than five years’ membership in ALA. Fresh voices on Council are good (see below), but please take a few season cycles to learn from the inside how ALA works before asking to join “the governing body of ALA”.
  2. Service on either an ALA Committee or a division board of directors. Serving one level below ALA Council provides an opportunity to better understand what Council does and can do.
  3. They now work in a library. The voices of people with current and ongoing first-hand experience with the work of libraries should be the predominant voices on ALA Council.
  4. Never served on ALA Council. Fresh ideas come from fresh voices. I would support a term limit of three 3-year terms for ALA Council.
  5. Admirable record of work. From the current roster, I voted for Ciszek, Clasper, Comito, Findley, Gooch, Pace, Pressley, and Zabriskie for at-large Council seats in part because I had heard of their projects or papers.

My German friends at Ohio State laughed to hear that I had ancestors named Biedermann. To be a “Biedermann,” in German slang, is to be someone narrow and strict, someone who merely follows orders.

That joshing came to mind while reading Rick Anderson’s recent article, in which he divides fellow librarians into two groups: those who lean towards being dutiful “soldiers” and those who lean towards being willful “revolutionaries.” While weighing the relative merits of the two groups, Anderson lays a heavy thumb on the “soldiers” side of the scale. My thumb lays on the other side.

(Where Anderson applies his thumb hardest is with the bullet points in the “Soldiers and revolutionaries” section, which are practically parody. So be it, though…as we’ll soon see, what Anderson can do, I can do, too…)

Rather than use Anderson’s “soldiers” and “revolutionaries,” let’s honor the recent Fourth of July by describing the two sides as, respectively, “Tories” and “Patriots.”

Those with a predominantly Tory mindset:

  • accept the status quo
  • go along to get along
  • reliably defer to authority
  • do the work that someone else puts in front of them

Those with a predominantly Patriot mindset:

  • ask searching questions
  • challenge received assumptions
  • work independently when needed
  • build far-flung collegial relationships
  • try new things to meet new needs

To paraphrase Anderson, hardly any individual librarian can be characterized as either a pure Tory or a pure Patriot. But which mindset would you want characterizing your library in these days of transformational change?

As Anderson notes, “tightening budgets increasingly force us to choose between worthy programs and projects.” Publishers have steadily cut into library purchasing power for decades by raising their subscription rates far faster than the rate of inflation.

The traditional Tory passivity of all too many librarians–the Biedermann mentality that meekly accepts the status quo–serves students and faculty unusually poorly as we struggle with an unaffordable system of scholarly communication created by publishers for publishers.

How, then, can libraries break out of that dead-end system? They can do it by drawing on Patriot courage, leadership, and innovation.

Anderson ends his article with a heavy-handed reminder that libraries are “ethically obligated to support the mission” of their funders. Anderson implies that only “revolutionaries” will find themselves in that sort of ethical difficulty, and, as a result, risk ending up as unemployed “freelancers.”

Charming.

Back in the real world…

When a librarian timidly does what he’s always done because he lacks the courage or imagination to change, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?

When a librarian just wants to write the same (if ever-larger) checks to the same publishers in the same process because that’s his comfort zone, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?

Are those Tory-style lapses in meeting ethical obligations so improbable that they were not even worth mentioning?

And if they’re not so improbable, why didn’t Anderson bother to mention them?

That imbalance is the fatal weakness of his article.

Maybe he would have benefited from having some Biedermann ancestors.